Vision and Literacy: A Call to Action

In the course of some Sunday late afternoon house cleaning I came across a book I stuffed away that I’ll elaborate on shortly.  But while looking for the web image of its cover I discovered a pleasant site, the Vision & Learning Forum.  Its mission statement is the following:  The Mission of the Vision and Learning Forum is to encourage a multi-disciplinary approach to solving learning problems and to heighten awareness among parents of struggling learners concerning the relationship between sight, vision and learning.

The current President of the Vision & Learning Forum, Inc. is COVD member Tara Peterson, O.D.  They have a really sleek-looking symptoms checklist on their website that is a version of the COVD Quality of Life questionnaire.  Anyway, the book I was referring to is Eyes for Learning by Antonia Orfield, O.D., and I forgot how good the book is until I started thumbing through it again.  Antonia regrettably died of cancer in 2009, just two years after the book was published.  In re-reading it I found that it’s a superb compilation of topics written in a style very well suited to the general public.  In this sense it has much in common with where the Vision & Learning Forum, Inc. is headed.

In a book review in the journal Optometry and Vision Development in 2008 I noted that Dr. Orfield presented a number of bold initiatives.  It would be wonderful if a group like the Vision & Learning Forum could carry some of these forward.  Here is one example.  Dr. Orfield wrote (p. 218) that most schools employ occupational therapists.  They and the teachers are reluctant to refer for vision evaluations because parents are then going to try to get the school to pay for it.  While visual intervention is something not usually paid for, parents must take responsibilty for making sure that their children are visually ready to learn.  Dr. Orfield concludes (p. 219) that schools should discourage  OTs or teachers for raising issues about vision and learning because they don’t want to hassle with parents over who pays what bills for treatment outside the school doors.

At the time of the publication of this book, Gary Orfield was a Professor of Education and Social Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  On April 4, 2001, Professor Orfield chaired a series of research presentations at Harvard entitled How Vision Impacts Literacy: An Educational Problem That Can Be Solved.  The symposium was published in the Journal of Behavioral Optometry, and Professor Orfield wrote a guest editorial that remains inspiring.

Lack of visual readiness for learning is one of the barriers to education that we can collectively solve.  In 2008 Essilor Vision Foundation published a call to action regarding CHILDREN’S VISION CARE IN THE 21ST CENTURY AND IT’S IMPACT ON EDUCATION, LITERACY, SOCIAL ISSUES, AND THE WORKPLACE.   Its author, Dr. Joel Zaba, noted that even when children are identified as needing a vision exam after failing a vision screening, half of them never make it to the examination.  Pediatricians and pediatric ophthalmologists have continued to argue that screenings suffice, with roundtable discussions making it apparent that they will continue to advocate the untenable position that vision has little bearing on literacy.

Professor Orfield wrote the following in his Foreword to Dr. Orfield’s book: “This is a fascinating and important story, but I urge readers to do more than read this book.  I urge them to think about where they would be in life if they grew up with serious, untreated vision problems and then take action in their families and communities to remove barriers that waste the talent and damage the lives of too many children.”

I urge you to do the same.

– Leonard J. Press, O.D., FCOVD, FAAO

One thought on “Vision and Literacy: A Call to Action

  1. In a different world, parents might be better equipped to detect vision problems in their children, but of course everyday we hear stories of parents and schools that did not. I believe it’s a shared responsibility, and schools need to be involved. My work with VERA, a school vision screening software program that actually works, has convinced me that schools can play a much bigger role that will help them and their students. The fear that school districts have of being forced to pay for VT has not been realized in the 3 districts that use VERA and refer out for functional vision care. But the fear is widespread, and is certainly a barrier to schools being more active partners, in my opinion. Preschool eye exams are not the answer, either. While they will do a much better job of detecting amblyopia and significant refractive error, they will often not detect more subtle binocular issues at that age, or problems that develop later. Schools need to be involved in finding the kids that are underperforming due to undiagnosed vision issues. Collective action is needed.

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